A Verbizing Interlude

[ Posted Thursday, April 26th, 2012 – 16:52 UTC ]

We're going to, as Dave Barry likes to say, play "Mister Language Person" today. Mostly because it is so much fun. But we do realize that this is not everyone's cup of tea, so we are being extra polite and warning everyone, up front. Those of you scratching your heads over how an editorial (seemingly-plural) "we" can be said to be a (singular) "Mister," please continue reading (although we're not going to unravel that mystery today, sorry).

We speak today, instead, on the subject of verbizing. Verbizing, for those who have never heard the term, is the process of turning innocent nouns into verbs. This verbizing interlude is brought to you today by the trademark: "Etch A Sketch."

While Mitt Romney will be haunted by this term for the next few months, we're already seeing signs of the next step: verbizing. We even contributed to this trend ourselves yesterday with a parenthetical "Etch A Sketched?" comment.

Romney's low-tech-toy problem began when one of his top advisors made what is called a "Washington gaffe" (defined as: accidentally or unintentionally uttering the truth in a political setting) by predicting that Mitt could tack back to the center after winning the Republican nomination by shaking his campaign message up like an Etch A Sketch, effectively wiping everything he had said up until that point magically away.

This immediately led to an absolute explosion of misusing what is clearly a trademark, with such variants as "Etch a Sketch" (which the Washington Post still bizarrely insists on using) to "Etch-a-sketch" and all sorts of other nonsense. Editors seemingly forgot that it takes about five seconds to find the website of the trademark's owner online, and thus easily check the spelling (who in the world would think something like "Iphone" or "Ipad" would be correct, for instance?). Even if that's too tough, you can always just search for an image of the toy itself, which (of course) has the correct capitalization (and non-hyphenation).

But Etch A Sketch has been mostly used as a modifier, up until this point: "Mitt Romney will have an Etch A Sketch moment on this issue" (for instance). Now, to digress a bit, purists might argue that since it is a multi-word modifier, the correct usage should be "an Etch-A-Sketch moment" but we tend to disagree, because the phrase is an actual trademark (and therefore cannot be altered according to what would be normal grammatical rules). We may be wrong on this, but that's the way we feel, so there. Hmmph.

Now that Mitt is actually having such Etch A Sketch moments on a regular basis (on student loans, on whether he thinks Arizona's immigration law is a model for the nation, on all sorts of things, really), we feel it is time to take things to the next level, and just go ahead and verbize the term. The proper usage will soon become: "Mitt Romney is Etch A Sketching once again," or "After Mitt Etch A Sketched on student loans," or "I think Mitt's about to Etch A Sketch on the issue." For the same reasons iterated above on modifiers, we feel that even after verbization, the term should still be used sans hyphens.

While some people's names become verbs (eponymical verbizations, to coin a phrase), such as "getting Borked," and other people become modifiers ("the Clintonian definition of what 'is' is") or nouns ("doing the full Ginsburg this Sunday morning"), in this particular case it's not a name but a trademark getting verbized -- although it may be inextricably tied to Mitt Romney forever.

I predict that the term will, in the very near future, have a precise meaning and also a broader meaning which may or may not catch on for the long term (post-Romney, in other words). The precise definition of Etch A Sketching (or "to Etch A Sketch") is merely a politician who tries to "wipe the slate clean" of some previously-taken position or quote. But this will quickly morph into being synonymous with "to flip-flop" -- which goes further, in that it refers to actually reversing a previously-held stance, and taking the opposite stance. Flip-flopping has been around in the political lexicon for quite a while (it goes much further back than John Kerry, although it did reach a peak during the Republican National Convention that year), so it's hard to predict whether the broader sense of Etch A Sketching will actually eclipse the usage of flip-flopping.

Nevertheless, (side note: I really love it when I can work "nevertheless" into a sentence, because it is so cool to type)... where were we? Oh, right, nevertheless, we are hereby putting our grammatical imprimatur upon the newly-verbized Etch A Sketch. Use it with abandon! Impress your friends!

Our guess is there are going to be plenty of opportunities to do so, in the next few months. Our humble prediction is that Mitt Romney is going to be Etch A Sketching his little heart out for weeks to come, to be honest.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “A Verbizing Interlude”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    I don't think the registration of a trademark automatically trumps other stylistic considerations. We're not selling Etch A Sketches here, or advertising them or whatever. The trademarked form of the name counts for something, but so does prevailing usage after a term has become generic. For example, the trademark BAND-AID is in all capitals, whereas the term is typically written lower-case especially in non-literal use (saying that a "band-aid approach can't solve Teheran's air pollution problem"). So too does ease of use: if they had instead trademarked "EtCH-A_skEtcH", for example, that would be really annoying to type and I would favor dropping the capitalization entirely.

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i'd like to point out a subtle difference between the etch a sketch and the flip flop.

    when a politician flip flops, the implication is that he or she might flip back. much like john kerry's "voted for it before i voted against it" moment, a flip flop is essentially a short term action that is part of a nuanced pattern. the more intellectual and trusting among us might call it understanding the different intricacies of the issue and voting differently based on the specifics of the moment. the less subtle might simply call it being a typical politician. you may seem to go back and forth with impunity, but it's really all part of the same sandal.

    etch a sketching seems to me a somewhat different animal. romney isn't just trying to explain away his earlier positions, he's trying to erase them from history, as if he'd never taken them in the first place. i'd call his stance on health care more of a flip flop, while he has etched and sketched multiple times on abortion.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Personally, I'd like to see Mitt Romney Etch A Sketch himself right out of presidential races, altogether and forever.

    And, that goes for any more of his protege, multi-millionaire friends who think they're entitled to buy high public office.

  4. [4] 
    dsws wrote:

    I basically agree with [2], but I'll elaborate.

    Flip-flopping suggests that you have no principles: You take a position pragmatically when it works, and then take a contrasting position when that's what makes sense. If you had taken the position as a matter of principle, you would have stuck with the principle in the second situation. (The possibility of nuanced principles is beyond the capabilities of political discourse. You can say it. It can even be true. But it can never get any political traction.)

    Etch-a-sketching suggests that you may have principles, but they're not as advertised. You may present yourself as the most "severely conservative" of all the plausibly-funded candidates. But it's a picture that was intended all along to be erased, because in your heart of hearts you're truly a moderate.

    I think Romney is a pragmatist, rather than a moderate. He'll do what works, for the political situation he's in. If (gods forbid) he becomes president, he will govern as a Republican -- as a doubled-down-on-the-crazy, outspend the Democrats ten to one, culture-war fanatic, fiscally profligate, anti-intellectual, Grover-Norquist-worshipping, A+-rating-from-the-NRA disaster. He isn't committed to any of that as a matter of "principle", but that's the party he belongs to, at the national level. His party's ideological groups are organized. They take names and kick ***. So the practical thing for a Republican in office to do is to check all the partisan boxes, every time.

    Ironically, the main barrier to him becoming president in the first place is the fear that he wouldn't do so. The base of the Party knows that he isn't one of them, culturally. They understand that "principles" in political discourse usually are nothing more than tokens of identity politics. And group identity is so important to them that they can't completely believe that a politician would really be pragmatic enough to check all the boxes just because the incentives are there. So they won't have the level of enthusiasm that brings the apolitical majority of an identity-group to the polls at near-100% turnout rates.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws [1] -

    Your comment raises several interesting points. I've been trying to think of multi-worded non-hyphenated brand names to use as examples, but all the ones that sprang to mind were mostly hyphenated ("Dial-A-Prayer" or "Rice-A-Roni" or even "Bowl-A-Rama"), so that was no help. Especially brands with "A" in the middle, which goes a long way towards explaning the almost-overwhelming urge to stick those hyphens in there.

    The only oddity I could think of was the inclusion of non-standard exclamation points, as in "Yahoo!" and "Jeopardy!" but that's not really much help, because most people ignore such fripperies.

    As for the capitalization, that is a long road which leads to a murky swamp. The English language has a process of assimilation (if Michale weren't out cruising around the sunny seas, I would insert a Borg joke here...), which normally takes the following path:

    1. Capitalize correctly
    2. Capitalize according to standard grammar rules
    3. Capitalize or not, depending on what the editor ate for breakfast.

    Eponyms are the best example. Now, I'm a stickler, so I almost always (when I catch myself) capitalize things like "Draconian" in due honor to Draco. But Draco lived such a long time ago that most have forgotten, and it's often used as "draconian." More recent eponyms are almost always capitalized ("Reaganesque" or "Clintonian"), because we still remember these folks. Likewise, the more famous the preson being honored, the more common it is to capitalize: "Herculean" or "Machiavellian" even though they're from the dim and distant past (and one is even fictional). But some have reached the point where the person has all but been forgotten, and the word has become a common noun: "chauvinism," "sadism," and "braille" spring to mind. Also, things like "bloomers" or "boycott" are almost never capitalized anymore.

    In science, strangely enough, there are seemingly no standards. Sometimes names are continued to be honored (disease names, in particular), sometimes they are not (especially, for some reason, when they actually become a measurement: ampere, joule, watt, hertz, and many, many others).

    Sometimes the name becomes mangled, as with "sideburns," along the way to its lower-case status. And sometimes it becomes a joke -- the man who invented the toilet was named "Crapper" (no lie). And sometimes it morphs into something entirely different, as with (electronic) "spam".

    There there is the loss of brand names and, thus, proper names, as a brand is so successful in the marketplace it becomes generic. Things like "jacuzzi" and "diesel" spring to mind. This can even be cultural, as with Brits who "hoover" their rugs (with a Hoover vacuum cleaner, of course) -- the verb "to vacuum" barely exists over there.

    There are plenty of companies who are fighting this assimilation with tooth and nail today, but in the long run will lose. "bandaid" is a perfect example. Its trademark is actually "BAND-AID" but nobody goes to that length anymore. Others on the chopping block (capitalization-wise) are "Kleenex" and "Dumpster" and "Styrofoam." Technically, these are never supposed to be used as nouns and are always supposed to be used in conjunction with the generic description of the product ("Kleenex brand facial tissues" for instance), but, again, nobody does anymore (who bothers with "BAND-AID bandages"?). Sometimes, due to overwhelming market share, these terms are adopted quickly (and sometimes verbized) -- such as "Google" or "to google".

    So, while I can't make a strong case on the hyphenation front, in terms of capitalization the rule of thumb is that there is no real rule of thumb (rule-of-thumb?). It all comes down to what is referred to in genteel fashion as "usage" -- meaning each editor is free to capitalize or not as the whim takes him or her.

    In future years, especially if the term survives beyond Romney, we may speak of "Etch-a-sketching" or even "etchasketching."

    We here at the Mister Language Person Editorial Anal-Retentive Group, however, will continue to use "Etch A Sketch" for the foreseeable future. After all, we still use "TelePrompTer," for Pete's sake (and definitely not "for pete's sake")....

    Now we must return to the task we are procrastinating, our weekly bout of Friday Talking Points-writing (Friday-Talking-Points-writing? Nah...). We'll get to the rest of the comments here later...



  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Footnote to above:

    Google is an intersting one, for the same reason sideburns are interesting. It really should have been "Googol" but either (a) the founders couldn't spell (which is their story), or (b) it was intentionally misspelled because a term in the common vernacular can't be copyrighted (why the "SciFi" channel had to become "SyFy" for instance).

    The most interesting story in this realm, to me at any rate, is the fact that the waterbed couldn't be patented because it was described in detail (meaning the idea was in the "public domain" already) in Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger In A Strange Land.


  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    If I were a tyrant with the power to impose style sheets on the world, capitalization would follow meaning: if the word actually refers to Draco, then it's Draconian; if Draco is only in its etymology and not part of its current meaning, then it's draconian. Note that by my rule the same word can be capitalized in some uses and not in others: one Athenian law code was Draconian, but any set of penalties can be draconian.

    If I remember right, Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet, nor is the word "crap" derived from his name. He did have something to do with relatively-early toilets, though, short of outright invention.

  8. [8] 
    dsws wrote:

    our weekly bout of Friday Talking Points-writing (Friday-Talking-Points-writing?

    It would be Friday Talking Points – writing, by my style sheet. That's an en dash, by the way, sometimes called n dash and written – in HTML.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    The most interesting story in this realm, to me at any rate, is the fact that the waterbed couldn't be patented because it was described in detail (meaning the idea was in the "public domain" already) in Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger In A Strange Land.

    Hmmm ... this is not the first time I've seen this novel and author referenced, this week!

    Undoubtedly, it is a case to prove, once again, that great California minds think alike. :)

  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    waterbeds were apparently invented in the 1860's and referred to in mark twain's writings, so they predated heinlein by quite a bit. it's interesting to read about all the waterbed patent lawsuits in the 80's and 90's though.

Comments for this article are closed.